Eight months after the federal government approved billions of dollars to help people pay their rent, more than 50 counties and cities still haven’t spent a single penny.
The numbers come from the Treasury Department’s latest data on the distribution of rental assistance, which Congress first authorized in December 2020.
Congress set aside an unprecedented $46 billion in two separate relief bills to help renters through the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of creating a national program to distribute the money, lawmakers asked state and local governments to give out the funds.
Of the first $25 billion, states and local governments have only spent $5.1 billion. They disbursed $1.6 billion in July ― a tiny improvement from the $1.5 billion total for June. Roughly 60 areas had sent out $0 in federal rental assistance through the end of June, according to a HuffPost analysis. That included the state of New York, which was sitting on $801 million, and the territory of Puerto Rico, which was afforded $325 million in relief funds to distribute. While some areas have started their programs, many are still struggling to get aid out.
New York has now disbursed $186 million, while Puerto Rico is still at $0.
State and local governments have faced pressure from President Joe Biden’s administration, members of Congress and advocacy groups, as well as renters who began to question why they weren’t getting assistance. In programs that were up and running, applicants often faced confusing paperwork requirements.
The Treasury Department is now urging local governments to ditch the excessive paperwork and take renters at their word that they’re facing financial hardship, instead of making them gather documents such as court filings, pay stubs and bank statements.
“The use of self-attestation for documenting household eligibility clearly speeds up the processing of applications for rental assistance,” the department said Wednesday in a release.
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The latest Treasury Department data goes through July, so some areas may have started giving out money since then. But other areas have barely begun. Jersey City, N.J., for example, didn’t even open its application process until Aug. 17. The city would not specify exactly why it had taken so long to move forward. Kim Wallace-Scalcione, a spokesperson for the mayor, told HuffPost that the city was “well within the federal guidelines” and had sent out other rental assistance.
States and localities are running up against a deadline. If they don’t use at least 65% of their allocated funds by the end of September, the federal government has the authority to take them back. On Wednesday, the Treasury Department said programs that “are unwilling or unable to deliver assistance quickly” were at risk of losing their money.
Even with the signs of improvements, aid is moving slowly. And the longer it takes, the risks of more financial hardship — or even eviction — rise for renters.
Katie Beavers, 36, had recenly finished her master’s degree at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University and launched her musical career when the pandemic hit last year.
“I had a financed car, I had a pretty good apartment, I felt like I was doing OK,” said Beavers, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas. “I was starting my career and then it all just kind of stopped.”
In February, Beavers applied for help from Texas Rent Relief, a process that took several days. Like elsewhere, the program in Texas asks renters to gather a variety of documents, such as copies of their lease agreements, late rent notices, court docket numbers and utility bills. If an applicant can’t show that they already qualify for a needs-based program, they might also have to cough up tax records or check stubs.
After a month, Beavers said she received word that Texas Rent Relief had changed its software and she had to submit everything again. Another month went by without aid, and she wound up handing over her car title for a predatory loan to cover rent and the cost of a wisdom tooth extraction.
Then, Beavers got a happy surprise: In June, she learned she’d been approved for rental assistance after all, with a lump sum going straight to her landlord, who had separately filed an application. The $4,600 payment covered roughly four months going forward, plus a year’s worth of utilities.
“It’s such a godsend,” Beavers said. “I’m so thankful I got it.”
Texas is one of the states the Treasury has highlighted as doing a good job on getting the money out.
The federal government has tried to put in place additional safeguards for renters. But they’re only temporary — and could be stripped at any moment.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enacted a 60-day eviction moratorium for nonpayment of rent in counties particularly affected by the coronavirus delta variant. As COVID-19 cases surge once again, that ban remains in wide effect, replacing a broader moratorium that expired at the end of July.
But it’s also under legal attack. Only a day after the CDC instated the current moratorium, the Alabama and Georgia chapters of the National Association of Realtors filed a motion in federal court to stop the ban. So far, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., has allowed for the moratorium to stay in place, but the real estate groups have appealed the decision and expect to take the case up to the Supreme Court. The court’s conservative majority has strongly implied it is not in favor of a continuous federal eviction moratorium.
Across the country, eviction proceedings are beginning to take place. Landlords have lost billions in unpaid rent, as millions of renters who’ve lost income during the pandemic struggle to keep up with bills. If eviction protections are lifted and aid continues to be sluggish, the money might come too late.
According to the National MultiFamily Housing Council, 80.2% of apartment households had made full or partial rent payments by Aug. 6, up almost 1 percentage point from the same period last year but down from 81.2% this time in 2019.
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